Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Favorite New Wave Albums -- UK Edition

I am an incurable list maker, and I am an unreformed taxonomist. I love categories and sub-categories, so here is a list of my Top 10 (okay, 11) favorites roughly conforming to the following taxonomy:

Rock ‘n Roll
New Wave
U.K. Performers/Bands

“New Wave” is a notoriously slippery label, vaguely encompassing the primal energy and DIY aesthetic of punk and the hook-laden ethos of pop. To its Mohawk-sporting detractors, it was simply diluted punk, the commercialized bastard stepchild of what was supposed to be menacing and anarchic and anything but commercial. These were the folks who didn’t know that The Sex Pistols started out as a marketing gimmick in a sex/bondage clothes shop. For me it was simply superb music. I don’t have a problem with melodies and hooks, nor do I have a problem with three-minute singles dominated by intelligent songwriting and the immortal combination of guitars, bass, and drums. And these are the folks, circa 1978 – 1982, who did that the best. It was a great musical era, and a great time to be from the U.K. There were good American New Wave bands as well, but this was a musical epoch, like 1964, when the best and most bracing music was imported to American shores.

In no particular order other than alphabetical:

Any Trouble – Where Are All The Nice Girls?

This was the greatest early Elvis Costello album never recorded by Elvis Costello. By this time (1980) Costello was veering off into the genre experiments that have characterized his music up to the present day. But Any Trouble, led by future Richard Thompson band member Clive Gregson, was clearly enamored of Costello in his Angry Young Man phase, and they made angry music about being uncool dweebs. Gregson, who looked the part, pulled it off not only because of his bookish librarian glasses, but also because he wrote superb little chiming guitar pop gems with titles like “Second Choice” and “When You Lose at Playing Bogart.” Bonus points for the genuinely rockin’ New Wave cover of Abba’s “The Name of the Game.” Uncool guys who can make Abba look cool are particularly praiseworthy.

Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain

You have to have a hit in order to be a one-hit wonder. So I’m not sure what to call Aztec Camera. But Roddy Frame, essentially a one-man band, wrote at least half a dozen songs on this album that deserved to be massive hits, and he achieved a surprisingly full sound with just overdubbed acoustic guitars and vocals. There are some absolutely timeless pop gems here like “Oblivious,” with its swooning backing vocals, and “The Bugle Sounds Again,” which swelled to a glorious crescendo like some Phil Spector Wall of Sound symphony. Roddy kept trying, but he never came close to this, his debut album. It’s a deliciously melodic, melancholic offering from a No Hit Wonder.

Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model

Well, you know, it’s a classic for a reason. As strong as Costello’s debut (My Aim Is True) was, This Year’s Model surpasses it in every way – in the wildly inventive wordplay, in the perfectly manic vocal delivery, and in the furious circus music dominated by Steve Nieve’s Farfisa organ. For me, this is still the definitive New Wave album, and it stands as the high water mark in a career full of very strong albums. Costello did vituperative scorn and musical one-finger salutes better than anyone since mid-‘60s Dylan, and his band The Attractions managed to capture the sound of a runaway roller coaster careening off the tracks. It was a 1978 model, but it sounds just as relevant and just as urgent today.

Dave Edmunds – Tracks on Wax 4
Nick Lowe – Labour of Lust
Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure

Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe were veteran pub rockers, compatriots of the Brinsley Schwarz guys who eventually formed the backbone of Graham Parker’s band The Rumour. Edmunds was at heart an unreconstructed rock classicist, as much in love with Chuck Berry and early ‘60s Girl Groups as he was with punk. His early solo albums are almost slavish imitations of Berry’s trademark guitar licks and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, but Tracks on Wax 4 finds the right balance between artistic homage and creative exploration, with Nick Lowe’s songs exploding with manic rock ‘n roll energy. It’s easy to play Spot the Influence – Chuck Berry here, The Everly Brothers there, the Wall of Sound everywhere – but Edmunds’ singing and guitar work and Nick Lowe’s songs were a great combination. The same combination shines on Lowe’s Labour of Lust, this time with bassist Nick stepping to the forefront. Edmunds’ solo on “American Squirm” is a model of economy and precision, while “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Switchboard Susan” remain the models for something, perhaps how to write lascivious songs while employing as many bad puns and double entendres as possible. Eventually these blokes stopped making solo albums and officially joined forces in the band Rockpile, where, you guessed it, Nick Lowe’s songs and Dave Edmunds’ guitar work were the high points. Between them, they made a good half dozen albums that verge on greatness, but these three are my favorites.

The English Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It

At the forefront of the multiracial groups (The Specials, Madness) who merged ska with punk attitude and pop sensibilities, The English Beat delivered a masterpiece of a debut album. Dave Wakeling wrote the great punk/pop songs, toastmaster Ranking Roger and Desmond Dekker alum Saxa added the authentic ska influences, and together they created impossibly propulsive music, whether they were covering Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), writing disquieting suicide anthems (“Click Click”), or protesting the indignities of Thatcher’s England (“Stand Down, Margaret”). You try to sit still, but your body wants to move, and you just can’t stop it.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

Before he turned into a piano lounge/ersatz jazz crooner and made millions, Joe Jackson was just an ordinary, not-so-good-looking bloke who had woman troubles and alternated between bouts of self pity and strident denunciations of all things feminine. That’s when he was at his best. Look Sharp, his debut album, features the ultimate study in sexual frustration, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and several more caustic bombs whose titles – “Happy Loving Couples,” “Fools In Love” – betray both the psyche of a wounded lover and an incurable romantic. Jackson’s band never rocked harder than they did on this album, and the whole thing has the sound of a greatest hits package, all wrapped up and delivered with a sardonic bow, the portrait of the artist as insecure asshole and raging libido.

Graham Parker – Squeezing Out Sparks

Yet another Angry Young Man, Graham Parker was the antithesis of the stereotypic rocker – he was short, balding even in his early twenties, and a buttoned-down conservative. But no one ever said that conservatives and spleen can’t mix, and Parker does some major venting on this album. He gets in his shots at the local girls (“Local Girls,” naturally enough) and his record label (“Mercury Poisoning”), but he saves his best and most incisive observations for “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” an anti-abortion commentary that still startles today:

Did they tear it out with talons of steel
And give you a shot so that you wouldn’t feel
And wash it away as if it wasn’t real?
It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face
Don’t give it a name, don’t give it a place
Don’t give it a chance, it’s lucky in a way

For some reason, no CCM band has covered that.

Parker’s band The Rumour burns throughout, squeezing out not sparks, but white hot, rampaging rock ‘n roll. Parker sounds like his head is ready to explode. Frothing at the mouth never sounded so good.

Squeeze – Argybargy

This isn’t the best-known Squeeze album (that honor probably goes to 1981’s East Side Story), but it’s stood the test of time for me. Every track is an idiosyncratic pop gem. Some Squeeze albums sound dated, but not this one. The gifted songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook spin out clever lyrics and sprightly, ever-shifting melodies on every song, and if you’re looking for evidence, consider “Pulling Mussels from the Shell” and “Another Nail in My Heart,” the opening tracks to this album. Driven by Jools Holland’s Farfisa organ (which somehow manages to sound hip instead of cheesy), these songs remain both quirky and endlessly accessible. The former, a quintessentially English story of tourists and their culinary preferences while on holiday, has to be the best song about bivalve mollusks ever recorded (with Soul Asylum’s Clam Dip and Other Delights a close second). The whole album offers convincing proof that pop music can be surprising, strange, and insanely catchy.

The Undertones – The Undertones

I never really bought the idea of The Undertones as a punk band. The Sex Pistols were a punk band, The Clash were a punk band, but The Undertones were a power pop band who liked to play their guitars really loudly. Feargal Sharkey, with his sheeplike, bleating vibrato, was about as punk as Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees. That’s okay. John Peel, legendary BBC DJ, liked “Teenage Kicks” so much that he played it twice in a row over the air. And I think I probably played it five or six times in a row myself the first time I heard it. It’s that good. So is the rest of this debut album, in spite of Feargal’s ovine imitations. That’s because these Derry, Northern Ireland boys wrote perfect two-minute pop songs about adolescent hormones and the ageless fear of rejection – not only “Teenage Kicks,” but “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Male Model” and “Get Over You,” songs that still barrel out of the speakers and bowl you over, twenty-seven years down the line. The original album, which has since been padded out with demos and B-sides for the CD release, came in at a rousing 28 minutes. It’s not a second too long or a second too short, and by the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on one exhausting, exhilarating ride.


Anonymous said...

Graham Parker - a conservative? Wow, you are pretty far off the mark! He is anything but.

Andy Whitman said...

First, who are you?

Second, don't take my word for it. See this:

And this:

And this:

Anonymous said...

I only am missing 2 of them. I simply love that Squeeze record. I think basically their whole career has been somewhat overlooked. Difford and Tilbrook wrote some of the most wonderful pop songs.

Also love that Aztec Camera record as well.

So when are you going to do the greatest 80's metal/hairband list.

Andy Whitman said...

Gar, I think VH1's already done that Greatest '80s Metal Hairband List. In truth, except for Guns 'n Roses, I pretty much missed that whole movement.

It's just personal preference. I love rock 'n roll, New Wave, punk. Metal has just never done it for me. I like melodies too much, and it seems to me that most metal is lacking in melody. Plus, it seems to me that guys who spew blood out of their mouths belong in the World Wrestling Federation, not on musical stages. Come to think of it, there are quite a few parallels between metal and the World Wrestling Federation.

I know plenty of people who love metal, big hair or otherwise. It's just not my thing. Don't look for that list anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Andy Whitman said "First, who are you?" - okay, I'm the webmaster for Graham Parker's official website, and I know him fairly well. Visit the site for some real insight into this great artist: Drop me a line if you don't believe who I am. Read some of his comments on the site, and you'll soon see that his views are far from conservative (thankfully). Instead of believing what some lame reviewers at Barnes and Noble or the National Review have to say, why not read some of Parker's lyrics and then tell me if you still think he's a "conservative" (whatever that means, anyway). Start here:



oh, and you might want to actually read the lyrics for "You Can't Be Too Strong":

Andy Whitman said...

Okay, Mr. or Ms. Webmaster.

First, thanks for identifying yourself. I appreciate that.

I know the lyrics to "You Can't Be Too Strong." Seems to me that I quoted about a third of them in the original post. It's hard to do that without knowing the lyrics. And yes, I've listened to the song, probably dozens of times over the course of many years. So what's your point?

For what it's worth, I like Graham and have been a fan of his music for many, many years. I'm still buying new albums when he puts them out.

I think most people would agree with the notion that an anti-abortion stance is one that would be more likely to be held by conservatives than by liberals. But yes, these are nebulous labels, and if "conservative" doesn't fit then, fine, I'm not attached to it.

My only point was that someone who writes lines like these doesn't fit the typical rocker stereotype:

"The doctor gets nervous completing the service/
He's all rubber gloves and no head/
He fumbles the light switch, it's just another minor hitch/
And wishes to God he was dead."

See? I know even more of the lyrics. Whatever those are -- conservative, liberal, whatever label you want to attach to the sentiments -- they're remarkable. And I don't want to detract from what was originally meant to be high praise. "You Can't Be Too Strong" was -- and is -- a great song.

Anonymous said...

Me again (John H.)

My point about "You Can't Be Too Strong", and what always annoys me when people say it's anti-abortion (who is pro-abortion, by the way? Nobody that I know) is that no one mentions the line "you decide what's wrong". Isn't that a pro-choice sentiment? One can regret an abortion without leaping to the notion that it should be illegal. Besides, the depiction in the song always sounded like an illegal procedure - which would indicate to me a plea to keep it safe and legal so that the unfortunate woman who has to decide can make that decision. This is the essence of pro-choice. There is something else going on in the song that no one mentions: it's written from the point of view of the person responsible for the pregnancy, and this person is very callous indeed, even joking and bragging to his buddies that "he left it overseas", and that it was "just a mistake I won't have to face", etc. The song is not about the woman, it's about the man and his guilt over putting the woman (probably a one-night stand) in a situation where she felt abortion was the only option. But he wasn't there to help her. This is my interpretation, anyway.
Graham doesn't like to explain the song, but here's a quote from another song that gives a different perspective:

They tell you they wanna give the right to life
To millions of jerks who will live by the knife
Who'll beat up their children and beat up their wives

Anonymous said...

Ooh Boy, Andy, now you've gone and done it: you've been accused of heresy in Liberalland, and Grand Inquisitor Anonymous is out to make you pay. You have been accused of the sin of independent thinking that conflicts with one of the bedrock fundamentals of the faith, the one that clearly states "pro-choice--good, pro-life (or anti-choice)--bad." It reminds me that years ago I concluded that fundamentalism does not refer to a specific set of beliefs. Rather, fundamentalism refers to a state of mind, one so rigid that heresy of any degree is intolerable and unforgivable. White is white, and gray is just another shade of black.

If Parker is mostly a liberal, and I wouldn't be surprised if he were, that song, one of my all time favorites, by the way, is evidence that his liberalism is not of the fundamentalist variety.

I must confess that I'm mildly amused that Anonymous has concluded that you're a conservative, Andy. Speaking as a moderate conservative, hopefully a thinking one, being a conservative is something I've never accused you of. Rather, the fact that you're clearly a thinking liberal makes you at least tolerable, and even lovable to those of us who love you.